Today, at 9:22 a.m., Obama campaign manager Jim Messina sent out an email blasting Mitt Romney's vice presidential running mate, Wisconsin congressman and House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan. "[Ryan's] plan also would end Medicare as we know it by turning it into a voucher system, shifting thousands of dollars in health care costs to seniors," Messina wrote.
There are many reasons why Messina's statement is tendentious, misleading, and false. The latest version of the Ryan Medicare reform plan allows future retirees use a premium support payment to buy private insurance or buy into traditional Medicare--a proposal endorsed by Democratic senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. Medicare will end "as we know it" under Obama's plan of rationing and/or bankruptcy. But the most dishonest part of Messina's statement is that it leaves the impression that the Ryan plan would affect current seniors. That is not true. Ryan's Medicare reform doesn't affect current seniors or those 10 years away from retirement.
Ryan justifies the delayed implementation of the plan because retirees or those near retirement have planned their lives around Medicare in its current form, and those under 55 will have more time to plan for some modest changes necessary to avert a fiscal crisis. Delayed implementation is also what makes Ryan's plan politically viable. Voters 55 and over won't be affected at all, so they really shouldn't have anything to worry about. And the vast majority of voters under the age of 55 don't believe big entitlement programs will even be around to pay them a benefit when they retire, as this Gallup poll on Social Security revealed:
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While 69% of Americans age 55 and older think they will receive Social Security benefits, a mere 22% of 18- to 34-year-olds and 32% of 35- to 54-year-olds think the program will even be around when they retire. Changes to Medicare--even the modest changes Ryan and Romney favor--might spook current beneficiaries or those close to retirement, but it's hard to imagine why younger voters would vote against a candidate for altering a program from which they don't expect to benefit. If anything, Ryan's plan offers the under-55 crowd the best hope that these programs will still be functioning when they reach retirement.
Medicare reform generally does not poll well. For example, one ABC/Washington Post poll in April 2011 found that 78 percent of Americans oppose "cutting Medicare" to reduce the deficit. But when voters learn that Medicare reform doesn't affect those over 55, the plan is an electoral wash.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll from June 2011 asked Americans if they would be more likely or less likely to vote for a candidate who "supports changing Medicare for those under 55 to a system where people choose their insurance from a list of private health plans and the government pays a fixed amount, sometimes called a voucher, towards that cost." Thirty-eight percent of Americans said they were more likely to vote for a candidate who supports such a reform reform, while 37 percent said they were less likely to vote for that candidate. Eighteen percent said it made "no difference" in determining their vote, and 7 percent were not sure.
So it seems that preserving Medicare exactly as it is for the 55-and-older crowd is essential to the political viability of Medicare reform. Democrats and the Obama campaign therefore want to elide this crucial fact about the Ryan plan. That's just politics as usual.
But the job of journalists is to provide context that politicians leave out. And when it comes to Medicare reform, the press does a pretty shoddy job of providing essential context that would allow an adult conversation about how the country can avert a fiscal crisis. See, for example, the New York Times report on Romney's vice presidential announcement. Reporters Jim Rutenberg and Jeff Zeleny describe Ryan as "an advocate of reshaping the Medicare program of health insurance for retirees."
No, Ryan is not in favor of reshaping Medicare "for retirees"--he wants to reshape it for Americans who are 55 years old and younger. It shouldn't be too difficult to mention the very basic fact about which Americans would actually be affected by the Romney Ryan plan. But the word "Medicare" appears five times in the New York Times report, and not once does the report explain that Ryan's reform takes effect for new retirees starting in 2023.
Most of the public does not yet know who Paul Ryan is or what his Medicare plan would do. The success of the Romney-Ryan campaign will depend in part on its ability to combat distortions and lies about the Romney-Ryan Medicare reform.
The good news for the campaign is that Ryan is the best advocate of his own plan and the best attack dog to go after the Democrats' plans to cut and ration Medicare.
"What I'm proposing is, make sure that we don't cut benefits to people in and near retirement, 55 and above," Ryan said during a debate on CNN in 2010 with Democratic congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. "They just took $522 billion out of the Medicare fund to spend it on another government program. They are the ones who raided Medicare."
"What I'm saying is," Ryan continued, "let's get these programs solvent. If we don't fix this debt crisis and get ahead of it ... we will shred the social safety net that people have counted on. What I am trying to propose is something responsible, prevent cuts from hitting current seniors, people nearing retirement, and then reform these programs for those of us who are under 54, because we know they are going bankrupt, and put them on the path of solvency and sustainability."